Robert Anders was used to hearing protesters chant “Death to America” when he showed up for work each morning, but this morning seemed different, the din louder, the mood darker, the tension a precursor to an escape so valiant it is now immortalized in both history and Hollywood.
It was Nov. 4, 1979, when a group of Iranian militants scaled a wall at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, setting off a hostage crisis that would define a presidency and disillusion a country. Anders, however, was one of 12 Americans working in the compound who managed to slip out the back door during the chaos and evade apprehension, if not something worse.
Once they reached the rainy street the 12 Americans split into groups of six. One group went north and was captured at gunpoint. Anders’ group headed west, and eventually made it undetected to the home of a Canadian diplomat, where they ate well, played bridge and worried for weeks they would be found and executed.
Meanwhile, as their whereabouts were known only to a few U.S. officials, the Iranians had taken 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens hostage, a crisis that lasted 444 days.
A CIA agent named Tony Mendez devised a plan for the six Americans to escape Iran and it was as risky as it was ingenious. He invented a fake movie company called Studio Six — named for the six escapees — that claimed it was looking for a place to shoot a sci-fi film, something like “Star Wars,” and Iran was among the contenders. The six Americans would be passed off as Canadians working in the company, according to the plan.
No detail was overlooked. They were given fake names and titles — Anders, for one, became Robert L. Baker, location manager — and Canadian passports were forged for them. They had phony business cards. Anders remembers being given a dry cleaning receipt from Ottawa for his pocket in case anyone frisked him.
The phony movie was called “Argo” — named after the vessel Jason used on his journey across the world to retrieve the Golden Fleece — and the CIA rented an office in Hollywood as a front. They even had people answering the phone if anyone ever called the phony numbers that were printed on the phony business cards.
The fake passports were sent to the Canadian embassy in Iran, and Mendez soon arrived to coach them up and bring them home. They even dressed the part. Anders, 54 at the time, wore a shirt two sizes too small, buttoned it only halfway up to expose a silver medallion and combed his hair down to look like a Hollywood director in the ’70s.
They were to fly to Switzerland aboard Swissair, but there was a measure of fear in the airport when it was announced the plane had encountered mechanical problems. When the flight was cleared to take off, Anders remembers walking up the ramp and looking at the name on the plane’s nose. It was the name of an area in Switzerland called Aargau.
Anders nudged Mendez’s shoulder and said, “You guys think of everything, don’t you?” If anything it was an omen, and after three months on the run they boarded flight 363 to Switzerland on Jan. 28, 1980. There was an open bar on the plane, of course.
Only a few people in America knew of the escapees, and the original plan was for them to come to a military base in Florida to hide, Anders said. No one wanted to take the chance of the escapees being discovered with the hostages still in Iran. The plan was aborted because the Canadian press was catching on to the story, and because the escapees did not want to worry their families any longer. Anders’ 90-year-old mother still thought he was a hostage.
After visiting president Carter in the White House, Anders returned to Port Charlotte, where he lived at the time. His in-laws were residents of Punta Gorda. Anders, in an interview with the New York Times from Port Charlotte, gave one of the original firsthand accounts of the ordeal, but left many details out, including the CIA’s involvement, and soon the story faded away.
It wasn’t until 2007 — the 50th anniversary of the CIA — when the full extent of the agency’s involvement was revealed and the story was of interest again. Eventually, it became a movie called “Argo,” winner of the Academy Award for best picture in 2013. Mendez — who died in 2019 — was played by Ben Affleck; Anders by Tate Donovan.
Anders is 94 now, and lives in a retirement community in Maryland. He said he is a “hard-core Republican” who is not enamored with President Trump because he “hijacked the party.”
He sees the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani as a grave error. “I think it was a big mistake to wipe this guy out.”
He occasionally speaks at a retired diplomats club and to retired CIA agents, whom he came to respect a great deal for the role they played in his escape.
And every so often, when the ordeal comes up, Anders tells the story of how he was among a group of Americans who fled Tehran beneath the nose of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. For proof he will open his wallet and pull out the business card he has kept for 40 years.
Robert L. Baker
Studio Six Productions.
“Tehran is very much with me,” he said. “It’s in the back of my mind every day.”
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